This is a two part feature. Link to Part I here.
before long, i was subject to the same unspeakable, unbearable impulses, the same that drive many people – gambling, drugs, and sex. having suddenly been transported into the role of a disobedient and rageful adolescent, i was closely monitored at most times. my parents were aware of the events of the previous summer, and to protect their own health as well as my own, they attempted to prevent me from leaving to places of ill repute with security cameras inside the house that blocked most methods of leaving – alarms armed, prepared to render themselves haywire at the slightest sign of motion.
but there remained methods to leave. i was constantly one detached window screen away from freedom. i ached for air on my throat, for carnal knowledge, for someone else to be inside of me, for me to be inside of them – i ignored the prospect of future assault, a now distant memory that faded by the day. and i was deeply ashamed of this, the dissatisfaction at solitary confinement, the need for someone else’s body. it became clear to me that this was hypersexuality, and i was ashamed, but not enough to cry for help: i think i’m going to make a mistake that i can’t take back, those words were never said. the prospect of following my impulses was intoxicating. i thirsted for a connection to queerness through unmentionable actions, and in my mind, i distorted the mandate against escape into a mandate against gay sex, against being a f*ggot. my homophobic parents were sending me a message. you’re a f*ggot.
and so i left, walked barefoot into a cold, sleepy cosmos. was i having an episode? why am i doing this? i never questioned it, i was drifting into the ether, i was sitting far and away from where i needed to be – no, i was where i needed to be.
and so i endangered my parents’ lives, them being close to 60 years of age, that age being a death sentence in this pandemic. i couldn’t understand the extent of my selfishness, the frightening nature of these actions, so i felt nothing. i felt numb. i felt irritated. i moved on to the next vices accessible to me. i smoked and gambled, and quickly lost a small fortune of money, which was not actually mine, but rather, provided to me by my mother and father.
all the while, i wondered why i was not being abandoned by my family, why they had not decided to cut ties with their petulant child. i was 21 years old, hungering for independence, and wasn’t able to find it. what was i desiring? why could it not be provided? were these repulsive actions not grounds for setting me free?
my parents assigned me a punishment: get a haircut. since revealing my nonbinary identity (explaining my they/them pronouns and other nebulous concepts that many were quick to ignore) to my close loved ones earlier that year, i desperately wanted to have long locks of feminine hair. i wanted to be beautiful, to wear dresses, to be thin with supple breasts – i wanted to be anything but what i was, a boyish korean-american who detested themselves since childhood, never understood themselves as beautiful, even after numerous relationships, hookups, and cycles of affirmation of physical beauty – it was meant to be apparent that i was desirable, in some fashion, and yet, i could not understand that. i wanted to be beautiful.
i received my haircut and immediately realized i could no longer look myself in the mirror. who am i now? i no longer knew. many months of understanding myself, accepting myself, taming uncooperative hair with strange conditioners and products, all disappeared in the crossing of shears, and the universe quivered to reject me after all.
i packed up everything. the window screen came off for the last time, and i escaped into the night, shoeless, once more, with a hasty plan that eventually came to fruition. and so, i left my family, my lineage, my name.
in the note quickly written, i told them that this would be better. you will no longer be burdened, i wrote, with the curse of having me as a child, your petulant child, your disobedient child, your selfish child. your gay child. your enby child. i’m sorry i was any of these things. but now, i’m an adult. i think we all have to move on.
i spent the night at a friend’s home in rogers park. approaching the city in an uber, i saw the marina towers for the last time. i thought about wilco and my connection to the city that birthed me. i traveled into the city every week during high school, and before rehearsing with a youth orchestra, i explored the city, cello on my back. i like to imagine myself as a butterfly, outstretching my arms and legs to fly through a landscape dotted with skyscrapers; i was leaving myself behind. red would be my name forevermore. i bled my name into the ground where i was born, and that blood became a choker around my neck for the rest of my life.[i]
i took the train in the morning to o’hare, bought a ticket to las vegas. boarded the plane in that gaudy, terrible airport, with white walls like a clinic, wandering hallways – i always thought the architect was anatomically confused, could not extrapolate true beauty from the bronchial tubes they must have consulted to create such aimless branching structures. it would be the last time i saw that airport for many years, and in that, i was truly grateful.
i arrived in las vegas clutching my blue telecaster against my scarlet short-sleeved shirt. i made my way out of terminal 1 and set out for the local student hostel; i walked with a lopsided gaze around the airport exterior, across the way from the terminal exit, to south las vegas blvd and began to see the las vegas strip. i looked up, and the glass, concrete, and steel began to form the outlines of arms and faces, monstrous creatures of every which kind and color. later, when night fell, i watched as the faces glowed and the eyes blinked, the lights flickering in the darkness. i remembered a story i heard long ago in which a character finds himself newly deformed in a new place; a stranger approaches him, and asks him some fatal words:
you’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
i was at a loss for what to do for several weeks, living in a hostel, lost amongst a small sea of eager travelers. the city was, beneath its kitschy demeanor, painfully small, inflamed and miniature, like a child’s tantrum. i explored every which neighborhood in my job searches, and began to understand the hidden reality that lay beside the las vegas strip: the residents are few, and feed themselves with the bodies of travelers.
my lifetime fixation on music held me through the days. the numbers and figures on the bank account records began to shrink, and employment proved near impossible to find in this damned pandemic. i hungered constantly, the dull pain radiating out from my stomach into my fingertips. i barely nourished, and expended myself to exhaustion every single day, walking between neighborhoods, begging employees at restaurants for job leads, querying locals, finding desperation and rejection at every single turn. all the while, the phone bill withstanding, i somehow still had access to music, and i continued the regiment of exploring new albums every day – it was my way to avoid madness. after two weeks, i noticed the outline of my ribs beneath my stomach in the shower. i felt dangerously close to death. biting my fingernails, i turned to the phone and headphones, and a photo of a woman filtered through a pale blue comforted me, as she sang to me.
wish i could write songs about anything other than death
but i can’t go to bed without drawing the red,
shaving off breaths;[iii]
i wrote tercets in my notebook.
i worry about machines
and blue, and bright lights
like spirits gone, spirits vanished.
my nails ring hollow
in the sunburnt winter;
they are thin and clear as water.
i can hardly hear
the silence of tears
behind the roaring waves of the ocean.
a week later, i finally found tenuous employment working at a café, a near impossible feat accomplished through repeated phone calls and the miraculous firing of a part-time employee. i was finally safe for now. as i built up small amounts of capital, continuing to eat meals sparingly, i quickly realized i could invest my capital in something i had great conviction in: my ability to play poker against the endless stream of foolish tourists who saw the game as nothing more than a recklessly amusing pastime. and so, i became a regular sight at various casinos throughout the las vegas strip after work hours, investing the bare minimum into the game so as to not bankrupt myself instantly. a foolish endeavor, certainly; but somehow, i was cautious enough to steadily earn small amounts of money day after day, something that can either be attributed to my provisional skill in the game or the miraculous figure of fortune bestowing luck upon me in ways unseen.
i remember a particular day in the bellagio quite vividly. the floor glowed a crosshatched red pattern under the chandeliers. travelers with masks shuffled chips and peeked at cards from behind plexiglass. like liquid, the chips – marked with denominations, $5, $25, $100 – flowed towards me. chips lost in unlucky pots were stray children that eventually made their way back home into my stacked assemblage. the barricade stood high until my eyes grew sore, and i eventually resigned myself for the day.
tabulating the results from the day, i realized that i had finally earned enough money to afford various amenities for myself, for my future self – i could realistically move into an apartment, finally, and resign myself to a more stable living. i excitedly walked right back into the bellagio, eyes wide open with a celebratory glow, but the bellagio would have to wait, for what came next
was a sudden collapse. i awoke, sitting, and a
gentleman offered a glass of water
where a drop of blood bloomed
with wisps of red
bleeding into crystal clear cracks,
a vermillion gradient smeared
across my eyelids, as they closed against dry
jaundiced scleras, the yellow of
the desert, the sanded abyss where
i’ve arrived, to suddenly
and arrive suddenly again to the vibrant bright lights of machines, an anxious, nervous fit. where was i? what was i doing? where are my parents? are my mother and father alive? do they know where i am? do they understand my current fate? if i die out here in the mojave, would they be contacted? had i resigned them to never understand my fate, forevermore wondering what they had done incorrectly for me to have rejected them, forevermore wandering the earth wondering if i was still alive or had fallen victim to the terrors of the world?
and you wake up trembling
from a dream where i swam into the river
i reach out and hold you in my arms
i love you, i love you, i love you[iv]
i awoke in the hospital a few hours later, with the old gentleman sitting by my side, holding my hand. he explained that i collapsed into him at the casino, and he accompanied me here.
i explained my predicament to him, trembling softly and sobbing endlessly. what have i done.
you can still return to them, he told me. is that what you want?
will they take me back? would they? is that for the best?
it was an expensive mistake[v]
it was a morally expensive mistake
and so, we embark on our trip north, through the mojave. the desert is a gaping maw, yearning to consume the two of us alive. the old gentleman and i. we travel to hopefully end up back in chicago someday. my companion, who cares for me like a father, is imperfect – he gambles, he smokes, he thirsts for sex. but he is returning me home. i accept him as my father because he is all i have.
someday, i will return to my homeland. in the meantime, we travel the mojave. we drag smoke from our mouths. we drink. we battle the elements.
what will i do until i return home?
this all, of course, is a complete fantasy. by some miraculous divine intervention, my mother saw me attempting to escape, having awoken for seemingly no particular reason, and prevented my departure. the daytime casualness that i live through daily, i owe to the fact that i did not escape, that i did not go to the mojave, that i do not depend on the kindness of strangers for companionship through the endless desert. it goes without saying that my imagined survival in nevada through poker, odd jobs, and cheap living is, also, a complete fantasy, a fabricated narrative composed by my most optimistic imaginative faculties.
and yet, i remain here to understand my ownership of my actions. i endangered myself and my loved ones; i was reckless with abandon, considered money no object, and all else. i had, at least, that to answer for. but what of all else? who must i answer to for my crimes against myself, seeking comfort in the arms of a rapist and attempting suicide? who must i confront for these absurdities? after all of these events, only a few weeks ago, i was diagnosed with bipolar type ii. i can only imagine what happened here as a hypomanic episode. but who will hold my past and future selves responsible for the chaos that ensues in the present? how shall all of this be managed, tabulated by the karmic police, whatever external forces are surely keeping track of the score now? surely i am owed something from my many selves – but how can i be sure when they have arrived to greet me?
how can i still talk to myself? how can my musical memory exist in earnest?
i remain unsure, but my window screen remains on its hinges. i live. i am glad to be alive, to write, to hear music, to tell tales later, to understand myself and the world.
i am looking out into the distance. i see the mojave haunting me, the place where i would have almost lost my life. i am walking outside. i hear
the falling snow snap beneath my feet,
and telecasters, and yearning voices
reminding me i am safe, that i can
sequester my impulses
and sit silently with myself and
the wind against the hair of my forearm,
that which my imagined father’s friends
could never understand.
[i] see endnote 5.
[ii] album cover from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
[iii] lyrics from “Sprained Ankle” from Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker
[iv] lyrics from “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” from Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Young Fenimore Lee (they/them) is a Korean-American kid, poet, and student currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. They have never been published in a literary context before. Indie rock, emo, post-hardcore, and other music genres are important influences in their writing.